Chicago Sun-Times
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Chicago outdoors: Something different on Lake Michigan

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Click here for my Sunday column on the tale of Kevin James swimming from Hammond to Navy Pier.


I am never quite sure what to make of tales like his, but I am glad somebody is doing it.

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Two Basic Causes of Boating Injuries

According to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), which compiles recreational boating accident statistics every year, 2011 saw 4,588 accidents and 758 deaths. An additional 3,081 injuries brought the dollar total to $52 million in terms of property damage.

The USCG, which operates under the larger umbrella of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, noted a 14-percent increase from 2010 – an alarming statistic which suggests that boating safety is slipping through the cracks of bureaucracy. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 102 boat crashes occurred in Chicago in 2009. These boat wrecks led to 70 injuries and 25 deaths. Nationally, there were 4,588 accidents in 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard reports. These accidents caused 3,081 injuries – 758 fatal – and an estimated $52 million in property damage. (Salvi, Schostok, & Pritchard P.C.)

It may be difficult to pinpoint the problem, although a USCG initiative to reduce BUIs (Boating Under the Influence) suggests that boat operators are likely to become impaired more quickly than drivers, drink for drink, and that alcohol is involved in about 33 percent of boating fatalities. This, in spite of the fact that drinking and operating a boat – which includes everything from a canoe to a ship – is against the law in the United States. This includes vessels from other countries, and U.S. vessels “on the high seas”; i.e., 22 kilometers ((km; 13.67 miles) from land, with an exclusive economic zone out to 370.8 km, or 230.4 miles. Finally, boating deaths in about 50 percent of cases resulted from operators capsizing their vessels and/or falling overboard, two indicators of operator impairment which strongly point toward inexperience and alcohol.

In a year when boating fatalities are again on the rise, it’s hard to imagine what else the Code of Federal Regulations, which daily updates new rules and pending initiatives via the Federal Register, can do to prevent boating accidents. Particularly when lakes and streams, and the U.S. coastline, are monitored by state entities like the game and fish commission (GFC), whose employee roster is running lean in the aftermath of a serious recession.

This is especially true in states with an abundance of water resources, like Minnesota, where there are never enough GFC personnel to monitor every acre of water to determine which boat operators should be tagged and pulled off the water. Surprisingly, Minnesota, the “land of 10,000 lakes (or flakes, according to the natives)” had only 66 boating fatalities in 2011 or less than 1 for every 100,000 population.

And, in spite of the fact that almost every state has boating safety laws like rear running lights, navigation lights, onboard fire extinguishers, flame arrestors and ventilation below decks, not all require property damage and liability insurance.
In Michigan, where insurance costs run about $100 per year with $10,000 in bodily injury medical payments, failing to pay for yearly coverage is understandable since no statute requires it. In Vermont, which traditionally runs on a slim budget, insuring a boat costs about $350 a year and provides $10,000 in medical payments. In Florida, which has more coastline than any other state, the average cost of boat insurance is about $500.

In spite of the rise in boating accidents across the nation, California in 2010 managed to reduce its number of injuries from 907 in 2001 to 570 in 2010. Fatalities, however, remained almost constant, at 48.5 on average. In Kansas, which seems an unlikely place for boating, 491 people drowned while boating, with 426 of them not wearing life jackets. In Arkansas, which seems even less likely, there were 15 fatalities in 2011 out of 73 reported boating accidents; this is down from four years earlier, or 2007, which saw 100 reported accidents.

On average, after accident causes like losing control of the boat and/or BUI, the most common cause of fatalities appears to be failure to wear a life jacket. The USCG notes that 70 percent of all boating fatalities drowned. Of this, 84 percent were not wearing life jackets.

The takeaway from all this might be the extra hazard involved in operating a watercraft while drinking. As the USCG writes, boat operators become more impaired more rapidly than do automobile drivers, even ingesting the same amounts of alcohol. The cure might be laws which treat BUIs with the same level of enforcement as DUIs. It might also be useful, noted a local politician, if failure to carry and wear a life jacket resulted in the loss of license, an item which is mandatory in almost every state. Staged over three separate offences, somewhat like DUIs, this kind of legislation would insure at least a modicum of compliance, reducing boating drownings by about 10 percent.

@Mark thanks for all the information on boating accidents. Even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the swim by Kevin James

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This page contains a single entry by Dale Bowman published on September 1, 2012 7:25 AM.

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